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Red Icons: Gary Neville – The scouser hating red

As far as icons go, any of the Class of 92 just about sum the word up. Each of its members are a figurehead for one of the most successful periods in the club’s history and are the epitome of the ethos at Manchester United. David Beckham, Ryan Giggs and Paul Scholes are the three names that first spring to mind when you mention the period, but one that is slowly entering the fore is Gary Neville. A playing career rarely talked about, but one that deserves more credit than it gets. It’s about time that changed.

Gary Neville’s journey to stardom began in Bury, on the 18th February 1975. Born along with his brother Phil, the Neville’s grew up United fans and started going to games from an early age with their father – Neville. Gary joined the Manchester United youth academy and his first youth season was 1991/92 where he captained the side to the first FA Youth Cup victory since the famous Busby Babes. This promoted the then manager Alex Ferguson (before the ‘Sir’) into action, and Neville followed the footsteps of his teammate Ryan Giggs into first team action with a debut against Torpedo Moscow in the UEFA Cup in the 1992/93 season. Two more appearances followed the season after, and then came the breakthrough.

Famous for Alan Hansen and his unbelievable balls up regarding kids and winning things, The 1994/95 season was the beginning of it all for the fresh-faced right-back. He became a regular first teamer following an injury to Paul Parker, and when Denis Irwin wasn’t swapped and Lee Sharpe made a makeshift left-back, Neville was the starter. He continued to play a kind of odd regular-bit-part role for another season, where the bulk of his showings were from the bench, before finally becoming out-and-out. He had 16 England caps by this point, and three honours to his name. 1996/97 would be the making of the man as he finished the season with yet more honours and his first individual award of his career. A rare goal against Middlesbrough topped off what was a sign of things to come.

Of course, there was more to his career than the 1998/99 season, but the part played by Neville can never be diminished. His versatility became a real asset of his as he moved into the middle of the defence for a brief period to partner Jaap Stam. He scored his second goal for the club against Everton in the league and played over 54 games on the road to the Treble. He and his right-sided partner built up a firm and reliable partnership for both club and country, and Neville quickly garnered a reputation as the best English right-back of his generation (the world if it weren’t for Cafu). Six more goals were added to his tally (that ended on seven with his final one coming against Lyon in 2004) and following the departure of Roy Keane in November 2005, Neville was awarded the captaincy.

A model professional normally, Gary Neville was brought before the FA in 2006 following a rather overzealous celebration at Old Trafford against Liverpool. Charging up the byline to celebrate a late winner was deemed insightful and criticised by arch nemesis Jamie Carragher. Neville defended the charge by asking if players should act like “robots”. He was fined £5,000 and warned about his future conduct.

Things began to fall apart for Neville, an injury sustained against Bolton Wanderers in 2007 started on the slippery slope. He made his return in a reserve game but had to wait until April against Roma to rejoin the first team fold and suffered the heartbreak of missing out on the Champions League final against Chelsea. He made his first start for 17 months in the Community Shield against Chelsea and slowly began building fitness back, though he was never to reach the levels of his younger self. In 2010 Neville stepped down as captain due to his depleted involvement in first team football and he eventually became a bit part.

New Years Day 2011 was to be his last performance as a Manchester United player. He announced his retirement in the February. It heralded the end of the second longest-serving player in the squad, and 602 games, seven goals, 20 club honours and a string of individual ones later the testimonial against Juventus was his last appearance as a player at Old Trafford. His post-football career has taken the shine off what he achieved for Manchester United, but it should never be ignored. You’d struggle to name a successor to Neville since his retirement, and I struggle to see where one could possibly be found. He may not be the biggest name, but he did his bit on the pitch, led his team, had passion and he hated the scousers.

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